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Source: New York Times
By: Alex Williams
TO see Nacho Figueras, the Argentine polo star and model, soak up the adoration at the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge in Bridgehampton, N.Y., last Saturday was to believe, if for a moment, that a polo player could actually be a pop star in America.
During an off day from competition, Mr. Figueras, a top player, was looking as lean and bronze as any of his ponies, while presiding over a Ralph Lauren promotional tent.
A steady stream of fans approached him with the giddiness of boy-band groupies.
Millionaire’s wives and billionaire’s daughters seemed thrilled to brush cheeks with a face that has starred in countless Polo advertisements. Children, who presumably wouldn’t know a chukker from a chupacabra, reverently handed him polo balls to sign.
But to see him enter the V.I.P. tent a few minutes later was to realize that polo, a sport of gentlemen, still sits well outside American pop culture. The “Ps” in the tent were not entirely “V.I.” — mostly reality-TV personalities like Jon Gosselin and a few “Real Housewives” — and they, not the dashing player, were grabbing the attention of the flashing cameras.
Mr. Figueras, 32, took a look at the scrum and exited quickly.
“It was all the ‘Desperate Housewives’ and that crazy guy with the eight kids,” he said afterward, mixing his television wives in disdain. “When I saw that, I wanted to run away.”
Popularizing polo is the challenge for Mr. Figueras. With bold-face status abroad and a romantic-hero jaw line, he may be the David Beckham of polo. And like Mr. Beckham, he is trying to elevate his sport and his team, Black Watch, into something that everyday Americans care about — eventually turning that mass appeal into a marketing and fashion empire. One day, he imagines, Black Watch, now a small label that he helped found under the Ralph Lauren umbrella, could become a giant clothing brand within the company, like, well, Polo.
But how do you persuade Americans to watch men with mallets ride horses? The sport has a lower profile than bass fishing.
Mr. Figueras — a six-handicap player, which places him in the top 3 to 5 percent of players in the world, polo experts say — seems well suited to the challenge, and not just because he looks the part, with his beautiful wife and children, celebrity friends and globetrotting career.
At least so far, failure does not seem to exist in his charmed life. Nacho can sing. Nacho can cook. Nacho can paint, family members said. “Nacho is a good kisser,” said Bruce Weber, the fashion photographer who shoots many of the Ralph Lauren campaigns, citing the Argentine custom of men greeting other men with a smooch on the cheek.
Mr. Figueras was a nationally ranked hurdler in high school in Argentina. On a recent night at a Manhattan bar, he tried his hand at table shuffleboard — “I think I be good at this,” he said, surveying a game he said he had never played. He played with friends for an hour, and ended the evening undefeated.
“Winning is a custom,” he later said. “If you get used to not winning, even if it’s in marbles, it translates into your attitude.”
This knack for results has started to pay off. Mr. Figueras, who began modeling for Ralph Lauren in 2000 and has been under contract since 2005, recently expanded his duties to be an ambassador for the brand and the face of several of the company’s fragrances. He has also had a bounce in fame that has landed him on the “Today” show, “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and even a cameo playing himself in a “Gossip Girl” episode to broadcast in September.
While he is no David Beckham in terms of reach, there are similarities to their personas. Both are pretty boys who double as on-field swashbucklers. (Mr. Figueras has been called the Brad Pitt of polo.) Both have sexy wives. (Mr. Figueras’s wife, Delfina Blaquier, a photographer from a prominent family in Argentina, is not a Spice Girl, like Victoria Beckham, but could easily work the other side of the camera).
Both have three adorable children — well, Ms. Blaquier is pregnant with their third — and both insist they are family men first. Both chum around with celebrities; for Mr. Figueras, those include Marc Jacobs, Kelly Klein, Wynton Marsalis and Madonna.
And they have both tried to raise the profiles of their sports. Mr. Beckham’s reach has proved limited; two years after the British star arrived on these shores, soccer is still soccer, and Mr. Beckham seems like a short-timer here.
Starting at a much lower level, Mr. Figueras has made some progress. Last May he helped organize his second free Manhattan Polo Classic tournament on Governors Island, in which Black Watch rode against a team featuring Prince Harry, in his first official visit to the United States.
At the end of the tournament, the victorious Prince Harry cheekily spit a stream of Champagne in Mr. Figueras’s face after sipping from the victory cup. A photo of the moment circulated around the world.
Mr. Figueras conceived of the tournament, which featured top players and drew about 5,000 spectators, as a model for exhibitions in other cities in the United States and countries like Japan and Israel. Eventually, he hopes the exhibitions will attract corporate sponsorship and television coverage, like Formula One racing.
Managing a polo team is expensive; Mr. Figueras, for example, travels with 15 ponies. But he and Neil Hirsch, the businessman behind the team, are working with Mr. Lauren, who he said has become like a second father to him, to turn Black Watch into a profit center. They are in negotiations with the company to expand the Black Watch line of clothing and licensed merchandise, hoping to cash in on the growing profile of Mr. Figueras. Eventually, Mr. Figueras said, “I really believe the Black Watch brand is a billion-dollar brand.”
But while his never-fail attitude seems well suited to the job of marketing the team, his low-key instincts place limits on how far he is willing to go to court publicity.
For starters, Mr. Figueras does not seem comfortable with the notion that he is a model, even though that job provides the buzz. He prefers, he says, to think of himself as Tiger Woods, an athlete who does endorsements.
“My power and my pull is what I do — not what I look like,” he said, adding, “I’m a brunet guy with long hair. Take a look, there are thousands walking down the street.”
But few of those have access to Bruce Weber, whom he met at a dinner party at Kelly Klein’s house. Mr. Weber introduced him to Mr. Lauren. The cheekbones, if not the man, were soon famous in magazine ads across America.
It was his quiet elegance, “an understatement about his way, and really, a shyness” that drew Mr. Lauren to him in the first place, said David Lauren, the son of the designer and a vice-president for the company, as well as a personal friend of Mr. Figueras.
In person, Mr. Figueras, while ingratiating, tends toward dry sarcasm, not pitchy hyperbole. When asked about the depth of his friendship with Prince Harry, he said, “Well, I don’t call him every morning to ask him what he had for breakfast, but yes, we have a relationship.”
Mr. Figueras, whose real first name is Ignacio, grew up with two younger sisters in a tight-knit middle-class family on a small farm outside Buenos Aires. His father, an agronomist, spent more than he could afford to support his son’s interest in polo, which has a rich tradition in Argentina, Mr. Figueras said.
“Nacho is very traditional,” said his sister, Mercedes Figueras, a jazz saxophonist in New York. He talks to his parents every day, via Skype. And although they did not marry until 2004, Mr. Figueras and Ms. Blaquier started a family when he was 22 and she was 19. He still travels with his family for the nine months a year he is touring. “My wife and kids, that’s who I am,” he said.
That old-world sensibility was evident over a recent dinner with family and friends at the Standard Grill in the meatpacking district, where André Balazs, the Standard’s ringmaster, greeted Mr. Figueras like royalty. Mr. Figueras and his wife were discussing baby names. By mutual consent, he chose the first child’s name: the rather antique-sounding Hilario (he is now 9). Ms. Blaquier named the second: Aurora, a daughter, 4. It’s Mr. Figueras’s turn again, and he is insisting on Artemio, which is like naming an American child Artemus.
“It’s an issue,” Ms. Blaquier said coolly. But Mr. Figueras was not backing down.
“It is the name of my great-great-great-grandfather, who was the right hand of President Julio Argentino Roca,” he said proudly.
He is also highly resistant, but not immune, to trading on the names of his prominent friends. (It certainly didn’t hurt news media coverage to lure Kate Hudson, Chloë Sevigny and Madonna to the Manhattan Polo Classic.) Gossip, however, is out of bounds — despite considerable prodding. And he resisted efforts of this reporter to tag along to any celebrity parties after Saturday’s match.
“I hate what you call a name-dropper,” he said. “The reason why I have these amazing friends that I do is because we take care of each other. I don’t want to use them as a trampoline.”
That night, Debbie Bancroft, a New York social figure and society columnist, spotted Mr. Figueras and his wife at a benefit for the Watermill Center that Rufus Wainwright, Calvin Klein and Isabella Rossellini also attended.
At the party, Ms. Bancroft, 54 and married, approached him. “He took my hand, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, ‘Debbie, we are going to get to know each other so well,’ ” Ms. Bancroft recalled. “My heart is completely pounding, and his wife is right there watching.”
“It made me wish I did know him better,” she added.
Mr. Figueras had at least scored one small victory in his quest: a polo fan was born.
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